Saturday, January 12, 2013
Jenny Milchman's "Made It" Year
by Sandra Parshall
Everyone who leaves a comment Saturday or Sunday will be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of Jenny's book. An additional reader will be entered in a drawing to win the unpublished prologue of Cover of Snow after the book is released.
For years Jenny Milchman has been known and loved in the mystery community for her contributions to the DorothyL discussion group and the “Made It Moment” feature of her blog. Now, after persuading a legion of other writers to describe the time when they knew they had made it and were real writers, Jenny has arrived at her own made it moment: publication of her suspense novel, Cover of Snow.
Like a lot of writers, Jenny traveled a long and twisting road through a wasteland strewn with rejection letters before achieving success. In this interview Jenny talks about the eleven years she struggled to sell a book and how her life is changing as her first published novel reaches readers at last.
Was Cover of Snow the first novel you wrote? You didn’t spend eleven years trying to sell one book, did you? How many times did you “come close” to making a sale, and how did you finally get that magic door to open for you?
Actually, this may be a part of the story I haven’t made clear enough, so I’m glad you asked this question. Cover of Snow is actually my eighth novel, although it will be the first one published.
While I was trying to get published, I kept getting close. I had three different agents represent five different novels and we had a total of fifteen “almost offers”—editors presenting a book to their editorial boards without getting the okay to make a deal. The last time before It Finally Happened, the novel in question had made it all the way up the ladder, and was turned down by the publisher herself. That was…crushing. (But in hindsight, the best thing that could’ve happened, in the same way that once you meet your husband, you’re awfully glad that last guy before him dumped you.)
Anyway, at a certain point during this process, I thought, Well, I’m hoping to get to do this for my career, so let me just act as if I already have a career. (That was a hard feat of pretend at times.) And I began writing something like a book a year, slowing down when my kids were born. Most of those are in a cyber drawer—probably forever—although there’s one I hope does see the light of day.
In terms of how the door magically opened…it did feel like magic, you’re right. I think it was a combination of me getting better, improving my craft, and also the intervention of a person who feels like a good fairy in my life. An author whose work I loved agreed to read my unpublished manuscript, and she wound up putting it into her own editor’s hands. A few weeks later, that editor became my own.
How much rewriting did you put into Cover of Snow before it sold? How different is the published book from the first version you began marketing?
This question too points me to something a lot of people may not know. (You Deadly Daughters are good.) So…Cover of Snow, my eighth novel, began life as my second novel. Let me clarify.
The idea behind Cover of Snow was a question that grabbed me around the throat and just wouldn’t let go. What would make a good man do the worst thing he possibly could to his wife? Of course, first I had to figure out what that worst thing would be, but once I did, I had a premise and an opening scene that was hard to get out of my mind. The problem was that I didn’t have a whole lot else. No coherent idea of how to structure a plot or communicate the mystery to readers. Though that novel earned me an offer of representation, my agent got lots of rejections talking about “the pace flagging,” and not, as she put it, “one nibble” from editors. I drawered that novel and went on to write another. And another. And another. See above. Oy.
But the throat-grabbing question was still…grabby. And one day I sat down and reread the manuscript—whose title I will probably never reveal—and saw how I had gotten it all wrong. A decade and six novels had passed. I thought I could turn this premise into a new book, and I did. That turned out to be Cover of Snow. In terms of how different it is from the original… the premise and several of the characters are the same. But I would call the version that readers will (hopefully) read the 22nd draft. And of 103,000 words that were in the first version, only 250 remain.
Would you say you learned from the rejections, or were they mostly form letters? Have you kept all of them?
I would go so far as to say that the rejections I received taught me how to write a novel. I was lucky enough to get very few form letters. When I began querying, email still wasn’t in wide use, not ubiquitous anyway, and I snail-mailed my packages. I got back pages of typed feedback, used those criticisms to revise, and in some cases, sent back the reworked pages to the agents who were taking time to school me. In one case, this led to an offer of representation—my first. It arrived electronically. I actually had to open an email account just to receive it. Yes, it was a long time ago.
I’ve kept my rejections, and in case there is anybody reading this who feels like they’ve been rejected a lot, and should they go on, I offer this photo to say: You should go on. Please. I want to read your book one day. If rejections surround you higher than a drift of snow, don’t despair. This only means you haven’t made it…yet.
When you sold Cover of Snow did you have a second book ready to go?
I did have other books—at least one—ready to go. However, my editor felt that my follow-up book should contain certain elements, which I couldn’t have predicted before we began working together. She took me to a long, lovely lunch that still counts as one of the more enjoyable events on this pre-publication ride, and we talked about what I might want to go for in a second novel. None of it would I have thought of on my own, but as soon as I heard her perspective, it hit me how spot-on right she was.
This has been my experience of working with my editor from the moment we met—and it’s one of the things I’m most grateful for. Anyway, as I write these responses, I am just approaching the climax of that next book, which is always such a fun point to be: when you feel all the threads you’ve knotted finally start to unwind.
Is Cover of Snow a standalone or the beginning of a series?
Cover of Snow is set in a fictional Adirondack town called Wedeskyull, and I think of the novels set there as the Wedeskyull stories. The recurring ‘character’ is the place. So in subsequent books, you might see cameos or walk-ons by characters who played a big role in another book, while minor characters might go on to have lead parts. I’m fascinated by life in a small town, the ‘heart of darkness’ there, and I hope that I can get to know my town through the prism of many different stories.
What kind of person is your protagonist, Nora Hamilton? What is her greatest strength? Her greatest weakness?
Nora’s greatest weakness makes her singularly unequipped to deal with the situation she faces on page five of the book. She tends to turn away from hard truths, to be willing to accept a smooth skin on things rather than look below the surface. And at the start of the story, she’s about to be faced with the worst truth there is.
Her greatest strength is probably that she can own up to this trait…and try to change it in herself.
Does it make you sad to let go of Nora after living with her for so long?
Nora, if she does reappear in subsequent books, will never do as much as she did in Cover of Snow. I’ll never get to spend as much time with her again. And yes, I miss her very much. I wonder how she’s adapting to all the changes in her life. I wonder if she’s healed as much as I hope she has.
Are the events of the book completely imaginary or inspired by something in real life? Did your original concept morph into something else as you were writing (and rewriting and rewriting)?
You know, I would’ve said that the events were completely fictional. And they are. Nothing like this ever happened to me or anyone I know. But…one day someone was asking me this question, and this memory came back to me.
When I was 8 years old, my babysitter came to me after bedtime one night, sat down on the edge of the bed, and said that he planned to commit suicide when he got home. He told me not to tell anyone. And I lay awake, until late, late, late, when my parents arrived, and I wrestled with what to do. My mom came into say goodnight, and I tattled. I couldn’t keep the secret. My mother called my babysitter’s mother, who entered her son’s room and found him with a bottle of pills.
If you read the book, you’ll see that this situation isn’t in it. But did it cast a shadow—over me, and my life? A ‘what could’ve have happened on that other side of the line’, where things don’t turn out right? I think it must have.
What draws you to psychological suspense? What can you do in this form that you might not be able to do in a different subgenre of crime fiction?
When I’m standing on a subway, I imagine being pushed. If I’m in a movie theater, I look for the exit. I imagine danger everywhere. There’s something about the moment when the main character’s life crosses a line, and nothing is the same…what writer Rosellen Brown calls the before and after. But it’s really the psychological that engages me—how one person copes with crossing that line whereas another person would have an entirely different response. Before I turned to writing—or turned back to it, I should say, since I always, always wanted to write—I practiced as a psychotherapist. I think I was doing the same thing, except that I was helping other people tell their stories. Now I’m making up my own.
A question from Deadly Daughter Liz Zelvin: On DorothyL, they have a lot to say in praise of “our Jenny Milchman”. Having watched you blossom from an enthusiastic mystery fan to a published author, they're kvelling like proud grandparents about your success. How do you feel about that?
From Sandy: I’ve been wondering about the same thing. Do you ever experience a twinge of worry that you might disappoint them?
Without DL, I wouldn’t be getting published, at least not now and in this way. That’s not an exaggeration, and I’ve promised to tell the whole story over a drink one day, maybe at a conference, hopefully with some of you. But for now let me just say that I love the people of DL. It’s the extended family every reader and writer must wish for. I am grateful to the community for their wisdom and support and encouragement, and the sheer joy in mystery they provided during the years when I wondered if I ever would be a writer in addition to a fan. I dearly hope I won’t disappoint anybody. They may not like my book, of course, but I hope I live up to the kind of mystery lover they have been to me.
From Julia Buckley: Do you like your cover? I think it’s cool. (No pun intended.)
From Sandy: Did you have any input on the cover design? Did you offer suggestions before the artist began working on it? (And yes, it is cool. Eerie and intriguing.)
Cool, ha. It is, right? Those chilling blues.
So…my agent got me what’s called “cover input,” which basically means I got to see the cover and weigh in. Now I truly don’t know what would’ve been the response at my publisher if I had said, “You know, I realize this has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but I always envisioned a snake…and some blood…and a measuring cup…” or what have you. But luckily I didn’t. One of the things about me is that I know what I can do—a few choice things—and I know the many, many things I can’t. Art and design are two of them. I would’ve added nothing to the cover process. Plus, when I saw what the art department came up with, I was so blown away that all I could do was tingle. To take 93,000 words and distill them into one single scene strikes me as a sort of genius that I will never possess.
From Julia: How do you do all the things you’ve taken on? How do you divide your time among different projects?
From Sandy: After publication, most writers discover that they aren’t super-authors with unlimited time and something has to give. As you begin promoting your book, with your publisher expecting you to deliver more regularly, what other activities in your life will you have to cut back on?
Well, I’ve been cooking a lot less! My friend, the fabulous family thriller—to use Oline Cogdill’s term—author, Carla Buckley, calls this “the year I stopped making dinner”. I worry that my kids won’t have warm, cozy memories of mom by the hearth. Periodically I remind them that I make a mean meatball…or used to.
I don’t really know the answer to this question. As of now, I write first draft material in the mornings and devote the afternoons to fun things like a post such as this. I write novels on a machine that is not internet enabled—it’s running Windows 98, and I have to backup on floppies. (I’m running low, and believe it or not, they don’t seem to make them anymore, so if you have any, please send ’em my way.) That way I can really be in the story with no distractions—I’ve noticed that my muscles are often sore after I write, as if I’ve been the one running or fighting, and heating up. (Yay—an excuse not to go to the gym. Another thing I don’t have time for.) Then in the afternoon, I email and Facebook and Twitter.
The kids get home from school around 3 and I try to be largely done until after bedtime so that I can help with homework or activities—of which we have few due to time constraints, another thing I suppose they’ll blame me for one day, along with the missing meatballs.
How is your family reacting to your success? Are they astonished, relieved, proud of your persistence, or a mixture of all three?
Well, first you have to understand that when you use the words “your” and “success” in the same sentence, I have to look around to see who you’re talking about. Or about whom you’re talking. See? I couldn’t possibly be a successful writer. My image of myself is as a struggling writer. I don’t know if that will ever change. I don’t know how people will react to this book once it’s out. I hear the criticisms, and I shiver. Success seems to be an optimistic prediction—and I thank you for having it.
But in terms of my family’s level of support, it’s another factor that enabled me to reach this point, whatever we call it. My husband worked for years so I could stay home with the kids and write while they were napping—and tolerating missing meatballs; thanks, kids, I really can cook, you know—and most of all, convincing me that I should go on because it was all going to work out one day.
A long, long time ago, my mother said something that I scoffed at.
“I think you’re going to make it,” she said. “You have talent. But I think it’s going to take a long time. You’re coming at this completely cold, and you’re learning it all from scratch. Ten years is not a long time to build everything a person needs.”
What was my response? Something shame-worthy, like: “Ten years? Ten years! That’s crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about, Mom. I could never do this for ten years without getting where I wanted to go.”
It took me eleven.
Thanks, Mom. And thank you to the Deadly Daughters, for being some of the people who propped me up and inspired me along the way.
Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and in an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Her first novel, Cover of Snow, is published by Ballantine. Jenny can be reached at http://jennymilchman.com and she blogs at http://suspenseyourdisbelief.com.
Everyone who leaves a comment Saturday or Sunday will be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of Jenny's book. One additional reader will win the unpublished prologue of Cover of Snow after the book is released.